First published December 2023 | Words and photos by Luke Digweed
Luke Digweed is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. He has been living in Vietnam since 2011, mostly in Huế but also in Đà Nẵng & Sài Gòn. While living in Huế, he ran the Huế Grit Tour & co-organized events & small concerts between 2017-2020. His most recent ongoing project is Festivals of Vietnam which documents ceremonies, rituals & processions around the country….read more about Luke
Bounded by the Mekong River to the north and bordering Cambodia to the west, An Giang is a province in the southwestern corner of Vietnam with a unique ethnographic history. The region’s complex past has resulted in an ethnically diverse population who follow a multitude of religions and worship a myriad of deities, ranging from local cults to global religions. For the visitor, the richness of the region’s spiritual beliefs is best appreciated by visiting the temples, shrines, pagodas, churches, mosques and numerous other places of worship that dot the province, particularly around the town of Châu Đốc on the banks of the Hậu River. This guide introduces readers to a collection of religious sites in and around Châu Đốc that illustrates the cultural diversity of the province and helps visitors to enjoy, experience and understand this fascinating corner of the nation.
RELIGIOUS SITES IN AN GIANG
Exploring Faith, Religion & Worship in & around Châu Đốc
This guide focuses on five general areas, each with their own interesting religious sites and places of worship. I’ve described, illustrated and mapped 16 individual sites, including Buddhist temples, Christian churches, Muslim mosques and shrines to local cult leaders. The Mekong Delta is a melting pot for faith, religion and belief: there are many more fascinating sites to explore in the region. Travellers can get to Châu Đốc from Ho Chi Minh City and all major towns in the Delta by bus. From Châu Đốc, some sites are accessible by foot, but others require short journeys by road. Just by visiting some of the sites in this guide, travellers will begin to appreciate the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of the Mekong Delta. (See Related Guides to read more about the Mekong & more by Luke Digweed.) My thanks to Minh Trung for assisting with research for parts of this article.
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Religious & Spiritual Sites in Châu Đốc
A Brief History:
An Giang’s history is a complicated one due to the region having been part of several different ruling empires across thousands of years. Its land once included Óc Eo, an ancient port city that made up part of a vast intercontinental maritime trading network between the 1st and 7th centuries CE. The region was under the rule of the Funan kingdom and various Khmer kingdoms for much of the last two millennia. During the 17th century, The Nguyễn Lords, whose rule was based in what is present-day central Vietnam, pushed their rule southwards and eventually brought the area under their control by establishing a citadel in 1816, which heralded the beginnings of Châu Đốc city. An Giang’s varying position throughout history as a frontier for different civilisations made it a space where religions and beliefs could manifest, mingle, transform and grow, eventually leading to the unique spiritual tapestry which the province showcases today.
Châu Đốc City:
Châu Đốc sits on the south bank of the Hậu River (Bassac River in Khmer) and runs south-west along the present-day Cambodian border. Aside from the provincial capital Long Xuyên, the city of Châu Đốc is the most densely populated area of An Giang Province. The population of Châu Đốc city is approximately 200,000, including Kinh (Vietnamese), Khmer (Cambodian), Hoa (Chinese) and Chăm people. It is also the densest area in terms of religious plurality with a variety of religious sites around the city centre and Núi Sam, a nearby and locally revered mountain.
The most prominent temples in Châu Đốc are Mahayana Buddhist pagodas which are dotted throughout the city centre. Aside from the larger scale temples in the city, the most distinctive pagoda is Chùa Bồ Đề Đạo Tràng, just south-west of the Châu Đốc market. The pagoda was established in 1952 and honours Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha). Notable features include a meditating statue of Buddha underneath a Bodhi (Bồ Đề) tree that was imported from India and planted around the time of the temple’s construction. Chùa Bồ Đề Đạo Tràng is unique in appearance: narrow, low-walled and unroofed in an attempt to blend in with its surrounding environment (although that environment has changed a lot over the years and now functions as a parking lot).
Opposite the Châu Đốc market (Chợ Mới Châu Đốc) is the Chinese temple Miếu Quan Đế. It was built by Chinese settlers at some point in the 19th century to worship the legendary Chinese mandarin Quan Đế (162-219 CE). Not only is Miếu Quan Đế still very much an active place of worship and prayer, but it’s also a place for the Chinese community to congregate and discuss issues and affairs relating to the local Hoa ethnic people.
Towards the Cambodian border side of the city is Châu Đốc’s Cao Đài temple (Thánh Thất Châu Đốc). The Cao Đài religion originated in Tây Ninh Province in 1926 and is a syncretic religion that combines elements of different faiths, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam. Its followers believe in a Supreme Being, the ‘Cao Đài’, who governs the universe, and exists within numerous spirits and deities. The Cao Đài is represented by the ‘all-seeing eye’ or the ‘divine eye’, which is a prominent motif throughout Cao Đài temples. While the temple in Châu Đốc may not be as big as the Holy See in the religion’s home of Tây Ninh, it still carries the traits of the religion in both aesthetics and practice and is a significant contribution to the diverse religious landscape of Châu Đốc.
There are two churches in Châu Đốc city – Châu Đốc Catholic Church (Nhà Thờ Châu Đốc) and the Châu Đốc Evangelical Church (Hội Thánh Tin Lành-Chi Hội Châu Đốc). The Catholic Church is in the south-east sector of the city and has a history of over 150 years. It was first established in 1870 by French missionaries on the banks of the Hậu River. In 1882, the church was moved further inland after the land underneath it collapsed into the waterway. At its current location, the church underwent several changes and renovations over the 20th century to not only tackle degradation but also accommodate a growing number of followers. The church was rebuilt in 1966 in a quasi-Eurasian architectural style with a bell tower. Some interesting features of the church include its spacious courtyard and the statues representing both national and international saints. Stairs on either side of the main entrance lead to a second floor choir area that oversees the clergy and the church.
Writing about the Evangelical Church in Châu Đốc has proven to be most difficult because there is very little information online and it was closed both times I visited. But it’s clear the church was founded during the French colonial era in 1921. The premises is narrow but active as church members regularly meet. There is also evidence of social work within the community as videos online demonstrate charitable work. Unlike other religious buildings in the city, access to the premises is much stricter.
Núi Sam Sacred Mountain:
Núi Sam is a mountain around 5 kilometres southwest from the centre of Châu Đốc. Standing at 284 metres above sea level, it is one of the highest peaks in the region. The mountain is visually striking and a popular place for hiking with its challenging ascent and panoramic viewpoints over the An Giang plains and into Cambodia. There is also a cable car that runs from the foot of the mountain to its peak. Núi Sam is home to a variety of places of worship and tens of thousands of visitors come to the mountain each year to visit the various pagodas and temples. Around the foot of the mountain are an overwhelming amount of hospitality-based businesses catering to pilgrims and tourists.
The most significant place of worship at Núi Sam mountain is Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ temple. Bà Chúa Xứ, also known as the Lady of the Realm, is a prominent regional goddess who brings fortune and luck to her worshippers, and misfortune and death to her enemies. Many tales revolve around the legend of Bà Chúa Xứ, cementing her place in Vietnamese folk religion. According to one story, Thoại Ngọc Hầu (1761–1829), a decorated general of the Nguyễn emperors in Huế, was protected by the Lady of the Realm when defending the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. The story goes that his wife, Châu Thị Tế, followed the direction of local inhabitants and visited the Bà Chúa Xứ shrine on the top of Sam Mountain to pray for her husband’s victory over the enemy. The general’s unlikely success was thought to be in part due to the goddess’s intervention. Châu Thị Tế showed her gratitude by rebuilding the shrine that housed the goddess and hosting a festival, which became an annual celebration still practised today. When Thoại Ngọc Hầu and his wife died, they were buried at the foot of Núi Sam, opposite the current location of Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ temple. People come from all over Vietnam to visit the temple, making offerings of flowers, food and beverages to the deity. The location is always bustling and there is a constant stream of visitors throughout the year. On days of significance, Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ becomes incredibly crowded. The complex is made of three buildings. The statue and altar, where people go to pray and make their offerings, is in the central hall. Photos are not allowed to be taken of Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ statue.
There are a lot of Mahayana Buddhist temples around Núi Sam: you could spend the best part of a week exploring all of them. The most prominent temples are Tây An Cổ Tự and Phước Điền Tự-Chùa Hang. Tây An Cổ Tự is situated nearby Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ at the bottom of Sam Mountain. The temple is believed to have been built by another visiting Nguyễn official in the early 19th century. Upon its various expansions and renovations, it has incorporated a unique style by blending elements of Indian and Cambodian architecture with more conventional elements typical of Vietnamese pagodas. Some examples of this are the black and white elephants at the front of the pagoda and the detailed design in the walls and roofing. Phước Điền Tự-Chùa Hang is also a Mahayana Buddhist place of worship and is part of the collection of temples on Núi Sam, yet its scale and complexity dwarfs anything else in An Giang Province. From the entrance to Phước Điền Tự-Chùa Hang, you follow a trail that passes by several small pagodas before reaching one of the main buildings where you are required to take off your shoes. As you continue to follow the trail, or divert off on a separate path, you are taken through myriad halls, ponds and gardens. At times, the pagoda feels mystical and cinematic. One of the highlights is the temple’s cave with a natural spring inside.
Aside from the Mahayana Buddhist temples and Miếu Bà Chúa Xứ, there is one church that also inhabits Núi Sam mountain: Nhà Thờ Núi Sam is named Our Lady of Lourdes (Đức Mẹ Lộ Đức). It is a stone and wood Catholic church more typical of older European architecture. The church was built in 1912 but existed without a priest nor regular maintenance over long stretches of the 20th century – most likely due to national events and its remote location. Nhà Thờ Núi Sam received renovations in 2012 in line for its 100-year anniversary. The church is rarely open except for Sunday mass and special days. I was lucky that a groundskeeper was around when I visited and he was more than enthusiastic to let me see inside the church.
Khmer Theravada Temples:
Along the Vĩnh Tế Canal, Highway 91 runs due southwest between Châu Đốc and the port/border town of Hà Tiên. Between the two cities are clusters of villages, sparsely populated farming communities and old military outposts. Roads are dotted with hammock cafes and local restaurants. This An Giang outback is where you truly see Vietnam melt into Cambodia. Most of southwestern Vietnam was once a part of Cambodia. Throughout previous centuries (particularly in the 18th,19th and 20th centuries) conquest and colonisation pushed the Cambodian border west, ceding land to the Vietnamese and later the French. While An Giang Province is within Vietnamese borders today, a large portion of the population are Khmer (estimates range from 10%-40%). This becomes especially apparent in the countryside where shops and advertising boards appear in the Khmer script and the temples follow the architecture typical of Khmer Theravada Buddhist temples. Although the An Giang countryside is populated by Khmer-influenced temples, learning more about them is tricky, because local histories of Khmer temples in the area lack thorough documentation. Online media tends to favour coverage of Sam Mountain for religion and the Khmer Rouge massacre at Ba Chúc. However, the wards of Tịnh Biên and Tri Tôn are great jumping-off points for visiting Khmer temples.
For readers who may be unfamiliar with Buddhism, here is a very basic and brief summary of the differences between the two main branches of Buddhism: Mahayana and Theravada. Mahayana has had a significant cultural impact in East Asian countries like China and Vietnam. Mahayana places emphasis on obtaining enlightenment for oneself and all sentient beings. The concept of compassion for the world around oneself is quintessential. Mahayana includes practices such as chanting, meditation, and the learning of compassion. Theravada is prominent in Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Theravada focuses more on individual salvation and individual enlightenment rather than the community and environment one is in. Theravada emphasises meditation and insight as the means to gain salvation. There is more of an emphasis on monastic life and a greater separation from the outside world.
Theravada and Mahayana temples have distinct architectural features. However, for the casual visitor, these may not be apparent at first. Mahayana temples are often tall structures with multiple stories, thin and long; the construction often runs on a central axis. Mahayana temples are often rich in details, elaborate carvings and statues of holy beings and buddhas. Theravada temples use gold and golden colours a lot more in their aesthetic. Statues depicting nagas, a snake-like creature prominent in Khmer mythology, are commonly found in and around Theravada temples. The prayer halls of Theravada pagodas are generally smaller than those found in Mahayana temples since the halls are not used for large gatherings or chants. When visiting both types of temples, the differences are apparent.
Approximately 25 kilometres southwest of Châu Đốc, Chùa Văn Râu is situated in the district of Tịnh Biên. The beginnings of Chùa Văn Râu are uncertain but it is believed to have been founded around 300 years ago. The premises are spacious with two entrances on the southern and eastern side. Entering from the main gate on the eastern side of the premises, you are welcomed by a row of tall towers each marking one grave of the pagoda’s past monks. To the right is a pond and behind it, the pagoda’s main prayer hall. As you ascend the stairs to the main prayer hall, you will notice statues of the seven-headed snake coasting the handrails, a depiction of a Naga snake common in Khmer temples. Ascend the platforms and enter the hall (if open). Inside you will find one altar with a collection of Buddha icons. The walls of the hall are painted with scenes from the life of Buddha and Khmer folk tales. Behind the prayer hall are the living quarters of the monks, including a kitchen, dormitories and a classroom.
Of the three times I’ve visited Chùa Văn Râu, I’ve only ever seen the children who live in the pagoda; the orange-robed monks I’ve only glimpsed from afar. Chùa Văn Râu is so quiet you can almost hear the sun beam off its golden domes and the wind rustle through the trees.
If you have more time to explore Khmer temples in An Giang Province, a further 20 minutes south on road ĐT948 will take you to Tri Tôn town where there are a lot of Theravada pagodas further demonstrating some typical traits of Khmer pagoda architecture. Two of the town’s most renowned pagodas are Chùa Xà Tón (Xvayton) and Chùa Tà Pạ which sits on Tô Mountain (Núi Tô).
Hòa Hảo Village:
Hòa Hảo is a native religion of Vietnam and today accounts for approximately two million followers. It was founded by Huỳnh Phú Sổ, a charismatic and enigmatic figure from Hòa Hảo Village (known today as Phú Mỹ Village) in the early 20th century. The Hòa Hảo began as a cult in the Mekong Delta and evolved to become an influential political power and regional military presence during the French colonial period and the American-Vietnam war. While the fascinating history of the Hòa Hảo is connected with Vietnam’s political and military history, in this article I focus only on the characteristics of the religion and its modern-day buildings.
Based on a blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, Hòa Hảo Buddhism is characterised by its focus on agriculture and self-improvement. It is meant for Vietnamese farmers, and encourages the practice of Buddhism at home. Hòa Hảo followers are not required to live in or attend ceremonies in pagodas but are allowed to lead normal lives while observing Buddhist teachings. Hòa Hảo Buddhism advocates for modernising methods of self-improvement, discarding rites and prescriptive practices to promote the essence of Buddhism in followers’ own individual interpretations of Buddha’s original teachings.
Hòa Hảo is named after the village in which its founder, Huỳnh Phú Sổ, was born. Today, the village has been renamed Phú Mỹ, in Phú Tân Ward, an hour’s drive east of Châu Đốc. Phú Mỹ is a small but densely populated and surprisingly charming place. Lots of stands and vendors sell food throughout the day and a few alleyways provide intimate insights into daily life around the market. Some southern modernist architecture remains in a town that appears more affluent than its neighbours of similar size, yet more sentimental to its architectural past than bigger cities. Peeking into the front rooms of residents’ homes here, the majority hang portraits of Huỳnh Phú Sổ above household altars. Everyone I spoke to on my visit referred to themselves as Hòa Hảo followers.
There are two locations of official significance to the Hòa Hảo religion in Phú Mỹ: An Hòa Tự Temple and Tổ Đình Đức Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Both distinguish themselves from the surrounding buildings and are adorned with the religion’s official dark-tan flag.
An Hòa Tự temple, also known as Thầy Pagoda, is located in Phú Mỹ Village. The pagoda is a significant religious site for Hòa Hảo followers and people will often come here to celebrate important days in the Hòa Hảo calendar, such as the birthday of the founder and the New Year. The pagoda was originally built as a place to treat illness and disease but was renovated in 1901 and turned into a pagoda. Around 1935, the pagoda took on the name An Hòa Tư, an amalgamation of the names Hòa Hảo and Tổng An Lạc. According to a Hòa Hảo blog, the pagoda had lost its followers and was run by an unpopular monk. Huỳnh Phú Sổ came to the pagoda and challenged the practices of the monk, eventually taking over the pagoda and renovating the practices of the pagoda to what would become known as the Hòa Hảo religion. The following years saw Huỳnh Phú Sổ continually relocate around South Vietnam, firstly due to the threat of the French Colonialists and then because of his involvement in national politics. When Huỳnh Phú Sổ was finally able to return to Hòa Hảo village in 1945, he took on the pagoda. In 1947, Huỳnh Phú Sổ went missing and was presumed assassinated. Despite the religion losing its leader, the pagoda and the religion continued throughout the 20th century to this day. The pagoda is still known as the master’s pagoda (Chùa Thầy) and the centre of Hòa Hảo religion.
An Hòa Tự temple is constructed with a combination of reinforced concrete and wood. The main hall features three roofs, with the central one being the tallest. The letters on top of the pagoda read “PGHH” meaning Buddhist Hòa Hảo (Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo) with the pagoda’s name “An Hòa Tự” underneath. The temple entrance consists of three doors, with the main entrance in the middle and side doors on the right and left. Inside the pagoda, there are ten altars in total, each dedicated to various Buddhist deities and Huỳnh Phú Sổ. The pagoda’s layout and architectural style have been maintained to honour the teachings and preferences of Huỳnh Phú Sổ, who advocated against creating new images and emphasised simplicity in worship. Outside of the main temple are two other buildings of significance. The first is directly opposite the main hall of the An Hòa Tự temple and is a small pentagonal tower for the worship of Hộ Pháp (the Dharma protector) whose job is to protect Buddhists from evils and encourage and support good. There is also an octagonal building called Nhà Lưu Niêm which keeps various artefacts and documents belonging to the religion and Huỳnh Phú Sổ. Unfortunately, this was not open when I visited.
Tổ Đình Đức Huỳnh Giáo Chủ is the family home of Huỳnh Phú Sổ and much smaller and intimate than An Hòa Tự temple. The house was built in 1919 by Huỳnh Phú Sổ’s father two years before he was born. A beautifully curated garden takes up a large portion of the land in front of the house. Motorbikes are requested to be switched off and walked into the property. Walkways lead either side towards the house, the centre is occupied by an urn and a 10-foot portrait. There are also lots of tables and chairs so people can congregate and talk. As you enter the building, you are required to take off your shoes. The main hall of the building holds altars for Huỳnh Phú Sổ and different ancestors of his family. The area is small but packed with photographs, murals and sacred objects related to the family. To the left of the front hall is a separate area for venerating different leaders of the Hòa Hảo movement. To the right is a windowed garage housing a 1950s American Dodge owned by the religion.
The Hâu River (Bassac River in Khmer) is a distributary for the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia that runs past Châu Đốc, not only providing an important transport corridor between the two countries but also fundamental resources for the livelihoods of the surrounding population. While Châu Đốc city is situated on the river’s southern bank, the north side of the Hâu River is where An Phú and Tân Châu districts are located, populated by a number of Chăm mosques and Muslim communities. Strangely, there are no bridges connecting these two communities, but a number of ferries connect both sides of the Hậu River. The difference in urban development is the first thing you notice when you reach one side from the other: the south bank, where the ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) and Chinese (Hoa) live is all urban construction and bustling streets; by contrast, the north bank, where the Chăm Muslim community live, is a quiet, quasi-rural setting.
It is not easy to understand the history of the Chăm communities here. In his brilliantly written paper, Securing and Developing the Southwestern Region: The Role of the Cham and Malay Colonies in Vietnam (18th-19th centuries) (2011. pp.739-772), Nicolas Weber writes how a community of Chăm and Malays formed communes in the region. First he asserts that the Chăm people in An Phú and Tân Châu did not migrate directly from the Champa kingdom that was once a part of Vietnam. They had previously been based in Cambodia and in contact, and in some cases integrated, with Malay communities before locating to Châu Đốc and Tây Ninh. In doing so, they adopted Islam. The settlements of Chăm-Malay people in An Giang may have started as early as the 18th century and their stay was seen as advantageous by the Nguyễn courts ruling Vietnam (or parts of it) during that time. While strong attempts to force assimilations and reduce religious diversity occurred during the 19th century, Weber suggests that orders to force assimilation across Vietnam in non-Vietnamese communities were softened for the Chăm-Malays in Châu Đốc due to their strategic importance in upholding Nguyễn rule. Attempts to assimilate the Chăm-Malay came to an end with the turn of colonial rule in the 1860s. The French colonial powers decided it would better benefit their rule to isolate different communities across Vietnam rather than integrate them. Thus the Chăm-Malay communities north of the Hậu River continued to exist into the 20th century and through to today.
Although in close proximity to Châu Đốc, the area in which the majority of the Muslim population live appears to be in Châu Phong, which is a rural commune of Tân Châu town. Two of the most prominent mosques on the road (ĐT951/ĐT953) that meet the ferry are Mubarak Mosque and Jamuil Azhar mosque. Mubarak mosque was first built in 1750 from the surrounding materials of wood and leaves. Through successive generations, it has received numerous renovations. Jamuil Azhar mosque was built much more recently (1959) but is the most visually striking mosque and subsequently symbolic for the local Muslim community.
Jamuil Azhar mosque was built in 1959 and has received renovations, most recently in 2012. It’s situated down an alley from road ĐT951. On walking down the alley, the building’s grand design takes one by surprise on first view. Its large white and turquoise structure and the domes that protrude from the top are typical of Islamic architecture and at odds with most other structures in Vietnam. Approaching the mosque from its southern wing, the gravestones that surround it immediately catch your attention – engraved in both or either Arabic and the modern Vietnamese alphabet. The minaret, while modest in size, stands as one of the tallest structures in the area. The mosque’s interior is paved and decorated in marble. Towards the west side of the mosque you can find shelves of religious texts and some typical features of a mosque such as a mihrab and the Sidra incorporated into various parts of the building. On the premises’ north end, the mosque is flanked by two two-storey buildings that function as dormitories, kitchens and classrooms. Between the two buildings is the Sahn (courtyard) which includes a roofed howz for performing pre-ritual/prayer washing (Wudu) and also a large pool in the centre of the courtyard with steps that descend into it.
Each time I have visited the mosques, I have found people not only there for prayers but people, mostly children, using the area for recreational purposes such as reading and playing. The site is also popular with some domestic travellers for sightseeing.
Mubarak mosque is possibly the most important mosque in the region. It was first built in 1750. Sitting on road ĐT953, its front is visible from the side of the street. While it isn’t as big as Jamuil Azhar Mosque, it still includes all the features of a conventional mosque. The mosque includes a large courtyard at the front of the premises and a garden rowed with graves in the back. The mosque is busiest during hours of prayer. Opposite and beside the mosque, some people sell snacks and drinks from the front of their homes.
Mubarak and Jamuil Azhar mosques are not the only evidence of the Chăm-Muslim community in the area. There are many more mosques in the vicinity. The few streets here are well populated by the community and you can often walk them and find a variety of local delicacies. Some shops sell clothes and there is also a market place. Be aware that things quieten down during the season of Ramadan.
*Disclosure: Vietnam Coracle content is always free and independent. Luke has written this guide because he wants to: he likes Châu Đốc’s religious sites and he wants readers to know about them. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page